This iconic symbol of our city has been displayed in public and private spaces in its current form since 1939; a version of it was first approved in 1917. It’s seen in places you would imagine and in places you might think unimaginable. Journalist Elliott Ramos reported on the symbolic importance of the flag for WBEZ; author Robert Loerzel wrote a piece for Chicago Magazine about how our flag — and our undying love for it — compares (or doesn’t) to other cities.
STAR 1: FORT DEARBORN
As part of their salary, soldiers received rations of flour, salt, soap and whiskey. And boy, did they love their whiskey. The government set up a small store where soldiers could buy extra rations — except for whiskey. Alcohol was a controversial issue and a young man named John Kinzie took advantage of the business opportunity, opening an outpost near the fort. Beginning in 1805, soldiers paid Kinzie their hard-earned cash to buy anything he sold, much of it whiskey. He started granting something known as a line of credit, and many of Fort Dearborn’s soldiers often found themselves in trouble, both with Kinzie and their government.
But perhaps the greatest problem was what whiskey did to Potawatomi/American relations. Although the U.S. Government had outlawed the sale of alcohol to Native Americans, John Kinzie found a loophole. He set up trading posts along various rivers and found willing and able fur traders to sell whiskey to the Potawatomi; avoiding direct sale kept him out of trouble yet made him a hefty profit.
By 1812, the United States was engaged in a war between Great Britain and the Native Americans. Fatalities occurred, tensions ran high and situations were heated. On August 14, Captain Nathan Heald planned to evacuate Fort Dearborn and ordered the destruction of whiskey and ammunition, most of which had been sold by Kinzie.
The next day, August 15, 1812 saw one of Chicago’s earliest and bloodiest encounters. This affair has been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The story is well-told, but often shared without full understanding of the realities of history. Native Americans ultimately attacked because they had been repeatedly provoked. They were introduced to new products that soon impacted their environments, their economies and their whole lives. The stories of the past are, sadly, often one-sided. But we can agree on one thing: alcohol played an important role in Chicago’s past and certainly was a significant character in the story behind Star 1 of our beloved flag.
Please join us at the Red Lion Pub on Monday, February 9 at 7:00 p.m. for a free conversation about Stars 1 and 2 on the Chicago flag. Author, historian, and Northwestern University professor Bill Savage hosts a conversation with Chicago History Museum curator Joy Bivins and Red Lion Pub owner Colin Cordwell. Samples of CH Distillery Bourbon and various British beer will be provided and all three will be on special for purchase at the bar. For more information please visit History On Tap.